President Bashar Assad quickly recovered from the blow he suffered with the loss of his four top allies last Wednesday, July 18. Within 24 hours, he had put in place a new command for fighting the rebels headed by his younger brother Gen. Maher Assad, commander of the 4th Division, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report exclusively. He also appointed Gen. Ali Mamloukh to head the General Security Service; Gen. Hafez Makhlouf, military commander of Damascus; and Gen. Ali Hassan, new chief of the Alawite Shabiha militia.
Gen. Fahad Jassim al-Freij was sworn in as Defense Minister Thursday.
Despite a wave of desertions, the Syrian army was soon back on the job, showing no signs of shock or wavering at the command level.
Within 48 hours the army had driven the rebels out of the Maidan district of Damascus. And while some media focused on the rebels’ capture of two Syrian-Iraqi crossings Saturday, our sources report that Assad and his new command had already moved on and were busy with a tactical move in retaliation against Turkey for the assassinations at the top of Assad’s inner circle: They opened the door to an influx of rebels of the Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) from Iraq into Syria’s northern Kurdish regions, with permission to set up bases of operation along the Turkish border.
This step had three immediate consequences:
1. By giving the armed Turkish Kurds’ separatist movement bases of attack against Ankara, the Assad regime was able to pacify Syria’s own 2-3 million-strong Kurdish minority (ten percent of the population) and make sure their towns in the north did not join the Syrian uprising.
2. By guaranteeing his own Kurdish minority’s loyalty, Assad released the troops posted there to fight Syrian rebels on other fronts.
3. While acting as hosts for the rebel Free Syrian Army commands which are campaigning against Damascus, Turkey is itself exposed to a new strategic threat from its southern border with Syria.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the flow of Turkish Kurdish fighters into northern Syria has advanced the local Kurdish separatist drive led by the Syrian Democratic Union Party. Friday, July 20, PYD and PKK fighters from Iraq joined forces to seize control of two Syrian-Turkish border towns, Afrin and Ayn-al Arab.
Assad calculated that semi-autonomous status achieved by Syrian Kurds in Syria would act as a shot in the arm for the PKK on the other side of the border and encourage their raids on Turkish government and military targets in support of their demand for like status in Turkey.
DEBKAfile update: The PKK were quick on the draw: Friday, they blew up the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline carrying about a quarter of Iraq’s oil exports at the southeastern Turkish town of Midyat near the Syrian border.
Assad has therefore begun exacting revenge on Turkey for the assassinations which cut down his inner circle.